Autumn is traditionally a time for taking stock of the year just gone by and looking forward to the next one. One blustery evening the three core members of Palate’s writing team, Ley (CL), Khou (JK) and Smith (JS) sat down to compare notes on their dining experiences this year and give their hopes and predictions for 2018…
What was your best wine of the year?
JS: For me it has to be that 1983 Sarget de Gruaud-Larose at The Inn at Whitewell: lush, tons of grip, a life-affirming joy of a wine at a good price and in wonderful surroundings.
CL: For a value and quality combo, I’d have to put forward the 2011 Taurasi (Villa Raiano) from Campania, which the Gilbert Scott restaurant peddles at just £60. Rarely do you see an old world, low-tannin, chunky wine, with a bit of age on it, in that price bracket.
JS: Fair play. That’s a damn good wine at a good price – positively a bargain. I hope the new sommelier doesn’t take it off the list…
JK: I really enjoyed the Taurasi at the Gilbert Scott too. My favourite wine however was the 1988 Clos du Marquis (Leoville Las Cases) we opened at Tredwell’s to accompany the Wagyu beef tasting.
JS: Oh God, yes! I nearly forgot that…
JK: I’ve actually bought six bottles! This wine in this vintage is an affordable, classic Saint Julien with just the right amount of age.
Best drink of the year (other than wine)?
JK: It’s tempting to plug my own drink, the Fortunate Son which was my submission to the Southern Comfort cocktail competition, but the best drink I’ve had this year was the Cigar Manhattan at the First Aid Box, a little bar in Herne Hill. Made with bourbon, grappa, tea-smoked vermouth and served in a pipe-shaped glass, it is the perfect blend of kitsch and creativity.
JS: Hm. If I may be permitted to fudge the question slightly, I’m a fan of cocktails based on dessert and fortified wines. I’m still mourning the death of ‘The Rotter’ at Noble Rot, their Sauternes-based aperitif, but this year a standout aperitif for me was Lorne’s own sherry, white port and Chartreuse-based drink. Sublime.
CL: Ah… for me, the Auchentoshan whisky at 110 de Taillevent. It’s aged in Bourbon and Ximinez sherry barrels.
JK: Oh hello!
Favourite new opening or random discovery of the year?
JS: For quirkiness, I loved London Shell Co and Rosa’s Vinarium (despite the latter’s poor food offering). I was also glad to see Michelin approved of La Dame de Pic (as I thought they would). But overall it’s got to be Lorne (pictured above). They’ve just got all the elements right.
CL: I second you on Lorne. I’ve been three times this year; each experience better than the last. It’s made a huge impact on London’s dining scene and deserves its various praise.
JK: I’m going with a safe option here – Core by Clare Smyth. Granted, the bread is mediocre and the selection of wines by the glass could do with more variety but the food is consistently good and the ambience was lovely.
Most overrated restaurant of the year?
JK: That would be Aster. Adored by TripAdvisor and Google Reviews, it was neither New nor Nordic. They also served an Old Fashioned with Johnny Walker Black Label, absolutely unforgivable.
JS: Probably Anglo, for me. I don’t really understand all the TripAdvisor love for it – it’s nothing special. Same goes for Luca (of the same stock as The Clove Club – you can draw your own conclusions there). Cris?
CL: Despite Bibendum’s leap up the Good Food Guide rankings this year under the stewardship of Claude Bosi, I failed to see what the fuss was about. Sure, it was solid. And at times intriguing (like the faux boiled egg). But it was that kind of minimalistic, Michelin fine dining that I’ve seen a dozen times before and which requires a pay day loan in order to meet the bill.
Best dish of the year?
JS: A tough one. The lamb I had at Gidleigh Park was off the scale. If only there had been more of it on the plate. Controversially I’d put forward a dessert as a candidate here: the malty dessert with lager sorbet at Mere, which was unusual, striking and bold and I think a sign of things to come. Essence of beer in a dessert? Somehow it worked. Monica Galetti is a great chef.
JK: My best dish was a saffron risotto at a restaurant called Le Calandre in Padova, Italy. This dish uses 4g of saffron per serving, and each bite is an explosive, transcendental experience; the signature dish of a culinary wizard.
JS: I love a saffron risotto. That sounds incredible…
CL: A slightly unusual entry from me: the salmon cart at The Game Bird. This is a formidable restaurant within the Stafford Hotel in London that opened in March of this year. As an optional pre-starter, a wooden cart is rolled up to the table, displaying several specialist salmons from which the waiter carves. Of note is the Balvenie salmon – soaked in whisky and smoked on site in The Game Bird’s kitchen. They throw in some crumbled egg yolk, diced gherkin and horseradish. Theatre and immense foodie pleasure all in one.
JS: Sounds amazing too. When can we go?
Best overall dining experience of the year?
JS: Without a doubt, Gidleigh Park – that lamb, in fact every course, was perfect and meeting Michael Wignall in the kitchen was the cherry on the cake. Closely followed by Den Rode Cottage outside Copenhagen – both were fabulous meals with perfect service in wonderful surroundings, though the latter was ludicrously expensive.
CL: Reminiscing on views through large sash windows on to the river Hodder; the crackling fire a few metres away, I’d have to proffer The Inn at Whitewell. A sensational meal accompanied by that 1983 Claret – all in surroundings which blended country chic with honest pub food.
JS: Of course. That was a stunning meal. I want to go back there!
JK: For me, Michel Guerard’s Ferme aux Grives in Eugenie Les Bains, the bistro next to his 3* restaurant Les Pres d’Eugenie. While that itself was sublime, it was the dining experience in the casual setting of a farmhouse bistro with an actual pig roasting on the fireplace that made me truly happy.
The clanger: the most disappointing dining experience of the year?
JS: We’re probably all going to say Townleys aren’t we?
CL: It’s Townleys for sure. What a waste of that Georgian building and its panoramic sea views from the dining space. A real disappointment.
JK: Definitely Townleys. A self-serve dessert bar would have been an improvement. As would being served by David Brent from The Office.
JS: I’d also throw into the ring The Real India in Exeter: promised to be a classic high street Indian but the calamitous service made it an unforgettable experience for all the wrong reasons.
Any hopes or predictions for 2018?
CL: I reckon period-inspired dining is enjoying a renaissance. If you look at The Game Bird, Fischer’s and the newly opened Wigmore Tavern, they are exploiting the use of dark woods, candle lighting and opulent decor associated with their respective histories. 110 de Taillevent looks like the Orient Express’ dining car. I can see a restaurateur opening a venue that wouldn’t be out of place in the great film, Grand Budapest Hotel. All the better for it as, provided there is approachability and an absence of unnecessary fuss, that style of Belle Époque, dimly-lit dining is right up my strasse.
JK: I hope the casual dining trend does not take a turn for the pretentious as it did in Paris. The bistronomy movement there kept the snobbishness of fine dining with low-effort cuisine and none of the accessibility of a real bistro. I’m going to be bold here – I think the way Londoners have lunch is going to change. Say goodbye to Greggs and Sainsbury’s Meal Deals, people are going to expect proper food mid-day.
JS: I agree. There does seem to be a clear move away from ‘fine dining’ but let’s hope bistronomy remains accessible. And I’m all about a proper lunch. I also hope to see a move away from torched mackerel! I saw it in menu after menu this year. Meanwhile, it has been good to see the recent rise of plant-based cuisine and I think we’ll see this become more prominent next year. 2017 has also been an interesting year for new openings despite the uncertain economy: Flavour Bastard, Lorne, Bon Vivant, Pied à Terre’s new bistro off-shoot Noizé, Stevie Parle’s Pastaio to name but a few, but many have collapsed (e.g. The Dickie Fitz / Lady Ottoline pub group). No-one really knows how Brexit will affect the industry but it’s worrying and it will be interesting to see how restaurateurs adapt and survive these turbulent times.